What Is Morris Dancing?

And to say veritie, and not to fable,
We are a merry rout, or else a rable,
Or company, or, by a figure, Choris,
That fore thy dignitie will dance a Morris.

– John Fletcher and William Shakespeare,
   The Two Noble Kinsmen (1634)

Morris dancing is a living tradition, linking pastoral communities of long ago with the cities, towns, and extended communities we live in today. Some speculate that morris dancing, a country dance most widely practiced in England, has its origins in Sumerian and Greek circle dances performed to celebrate harvests. Others believe that it descended from the morisco, or mock battles between Christians and Moors performed in Spain during the 12th century. The Horn Dance of Abbotts Bromley (near Burton-on-Trent) dates back to at least the late-12th century, and uses reindeer horns carbon-dated to about 1065. Shakespeare made reference to morris dancing in his plays, and Will Kemp, upon being sacked from Shakespeare's company, danced 125 miles from London to Norwich as a publicity stunt.

Today, "morris" is a general term used to label several distinct forms of seasonal folk dance--the springtime dance of the Cotswold with its intricate foot- and handwork, the raucous winter stick dances of the Welsh borderlands, longsword dances with Germanic origins, the antics of the cross-dressing Molly dancers from East Anglia, rapper sword from the coal miners around Newcastle-on-Tyne in the northeast, Northwest clog, and garland dances from the northwest milltowns traditionally performed during the winter months. Many contemporary teams perform dances collected by Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles in the early 20th century, and many recent dances based on traditional vocabularies have also been written and performed.